Promised by Leah Garriott is an immersive Regency reading experience featuring a strong and intelligent heroine determined to navigate the precarious marriage market on her own terms and the man who thwarts her every last carefully planned step to do so.
Still reeling from a broken heart, Margaret Brinton decides she will play the marriage game on her own terms – even to go so far as procure a union of convenience to notorious rake Mr. Northam. You know where you stand with a rake, Margaret believes. And while she may one day be hurt, she at least understands the truth about his character upfront. Yet during the weekend visit arranged to secure her fate, she crosses paths with Lord Gregory Williams who is so determined to stop her plans to marry Mr. Northam that he makes an arrangement with her father for her hand. Surprised and appalled that Lord Williams would want a convenient marriage with the woman he publicly slighted at a musical evening, Margaret’s heart is torn between fulfilling her self-promise never to be taken for a fool in love again and her burgeoning confusion at Lord Williams’ evident contradictions. For as much as Lord Williams seems to disagree with her at every turn, his persistence in his pursuit and the lengths he will go to keep her from his cousin Mr. Northam perplex and infuriate her as she attempts to read the secrets of his heart and her own.
As a die-hard Regency era reader I’ll admit that it can be difficult to sift through many similar plots and tropes in pursuit of the next fresh voice. By developing a heroine set on asserting her own agency in a society that would see her conform to the proper expectations of her breeding and circumstance, Garriott provides a needed look at the fallacies and limitations of an era we drape in romance. Thus, Promised is simultaneously a valentine to the Regency era and a deft critique of the few choices women had to secure a future of their own making. To achieve this balance, Garriott relies on many tropes and devices familiar and beloved to Regency readers (and most Austenites), but her alluring voice and engagingly strong heroine make you feel as if you are encountering them for the first time.
There are some truly lovely and subtle Austen references peppered throughout including a musical gathering, the set-up of easels for painting á la Emma and Harriet, a seminal ball (“A ball is a wonderful place to change opinions”, the book explains), as well as a heart-wrenching vigil when Margaret waits at the side her ill sister much in the vein of Elinor awaiting Marianne’s fate. Mr. Northam’s obvious association to the attractive rake Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility keeps him at the forefront of the reader’s mind even during his significant time off-page. Lord Williams displays many of the qualities indigenous to Austen from the steadfast heart of Brandon, the quiet and stalwart character of Wentworth and the sometimes appalling manners of Darcy (including a slight at a musical evening). But it is when Lord Williams’ gestures – both grand and small – recall Emma’s Mr. Knightley that we see the latter’s determination to see the heroine even better than she does herself and in turn fall deeply for him. Indeed, it is Lord Williams who encourages Margaret to see her potential even beyond her initial reticence toward him and the many times they seem at odds. For a woman stubbornly set on shaping her life, her past wounds have left her open to moments of believably vulnerable self-doubt. In this, Garriott has created a dimensional and achingly real character many readers will identify with.
The disagreements and misunderstandings that keep Lord Williams and Margaret from falling on the same page are clearly a result of the social restrictions and repressed communications of the era. While frustrating, and often heightened by Margaret’s seeming stubbornness, her depth of character and our awareness of her broken heart and cautious trust cannot help but inspire our sympathies for both parties. To add, despite Margaret’s numerous attempts to thwart Lord Williams’ pursuit, the most interesting facets of her character are revealed in their banter and exchanges.
Lord Williams, too, is impressed by the authenticity of their exchanges: “We have always spoken rather boldly to each other, have we not? It suits both our temperaments and has from the very first.” Like the best Austen heroes – the best heroes in general – Lord Williams is determined to accept the heroine as she is by providing a counterbalance in personality, a challenge in conversation and a deep belief in her that underscores any of the moments in which she feels ill at ease. Not without fault, his flaws and foibles are evident to him and that goes a long way to establishing our sympathy as he works to become a better man for the heroine Moreover, Margaret continues to inspire shifts in his character, the exchange of ideas and gifts and even a believable promise of his own. In one of my favourite exchanges, he admits he cannot promise not to hurt her, he can merely promise to try.
Promised is a winning portrait of a world oft-explored yet here differentiated by the authors’ unique heroine and voice. It is the portrait of a woman determined not to see what she has convinced herself is detrimental to her happiness and a world where a slight in modern capacity might prove inconsequential but was a dire social offense. And through it all runs the undercurrent of a lovely and smart slow-burn romance.
Slight physical moments are nuanced: curled fingers, a shoulder brush, the slightest touch the heroine learns to read like a book. A rose by a lake, a book of poems, and the angle of Lord Williams’ knees to give her room in the carriage build on the tension and chemistry between them even as Garriott maintains a story that will please readers who prefer their historical romances to be at the ‘kisses’ end of the heat spectrum.
Through every interaction with Lord Williams, the dashing Mr. Northam sinks further and further into the backdrop as Margaret begins to change. She lets her guard down and when unintentionally hurt the second time from someone she has grown to trust, she weathers it with a maturity we can only assume is a result of her time with Lord Williams. It is this slow self-realization of a heroine at turns vulnerable and stubborn that sets Garriott’s debut apart.
“Everything must start with a little step” believes Mrs. Hargreaves, a regular visitor at Lord Williams’ estate. And it is these steps so brilliantly and precariously taken that offer the ultimate romantic payoff when two strong characters meet in the middle, and learn to love assured in their choice, their similar temperaments and their willingness and promise to compromise in pursuit of their ultimate happily ever after.
~ Rachel McMillan